2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs — Golden Knights-Blackhawks Series Preview: Is Year 3 the charm?

Another run at the Stanley Cup for the young franchise that could. Among weird circumstances, this may be Vegas’ greatest chance to win it. First thing’s first: A series with a team that knows about winning.

There won’t be fans.

Games won’t be at The Fortress.

The knight will not pull the sword out of the stone and duel a cloaked figure.

Bruce Cusick will not yell “It’s Knight Time!” to a loud crowd at T-Mobile Arena.

The players will not skate through a giant helmet.

There will be no “Gave Proof Through the Knight,” led by Carnell Johnson singing the Star Spangled Banner.

The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen; an alternate reality from what we know.

Here’s what we know: The Vegas Golden Knights are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They will have “home-ice advantage” all the way to the Stanley Cup Final should they make it.

And despite these unusual circumstances, there may not be a better chance for this franchise to win the Stanley Cup.

That unorthodox journey begins Tuesday when the Golden Knights face the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of their Western Conference First Round series.

Reminder of last year (sorry ahead of time).

The Golden Knights ended the regular season third in points percentage in the West, earned the top spot in the bracket with three wins in the round robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Vegas bested the Dallas Stars, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche to create what coach Peter DeBoer calls the easiest path to the Cup Final.

The bracket will re-seed after every round. Should the Golden Knights advance, it won’t be the typical 1 vs. 4-5 matchup you see in the normal bracket. If there’s an upset by a lower seed, that team would meet Vegas in Round 2.

It would benefit the Golden Knights to make it to the second round this time around.

Who knows what would’ve happened had the Golden Knights finished the job and eliminated the San Jose Sharks last season. Vegas acquired Mark Stone at last February’s trade deadline to add superstar power to a cast of misfits fresh off the greatest run by an expansion franchise in the history of sports.

Stone played his part with 12 points in seven games. His linemates, Max Pacioretty (11) and Paul Stastny (8) did their part. But things happened, shorthanded goals in double overtime were had, and five-minute majors that erased a three-goal lead with 10 minutes remaining in Game 7 were a thing.

We’ll never know if the Golden Knights would’ve reached the Final. They were buzzing at the right time.

In Year 3, they might be buzzing even louder. The only thing louder than making the Final in Year 1 and coming up short in Year 2 is to win the whole thing.

“What it really comes down to is we had a great run our first year. Second year, things happened. This team’s got a lot of firepower,” said Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. “We’ve got a lot of depth in our forward group that I think makes us more dangerous than we’ve ever been.

“You see what happened in Year 1 and what happened last year, you’ve got to learn from those things. You’re not just going to walk back to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s incredibly hard to get there. I think our guys understand that. Maybe last year we thought we could roll through a team once you’re up, and we learned the valuable lesson that that’s not going to happen.”

How did we get here?

There’s been talk since the pause that teams who had a stacked injury list will benefit the most in this return to play plan. The Golden Knights finished first in the Pacific Division, but were without Stone and expected to miss him for the remainder of the regular season. Alex Tuch, who had been out since Feb. 13 with a lower-body injury, was also going to likely miss the remainder of the regular season.

Then there’s Pacioretty. Vegas’ leading goal scorer and point getter was suddenly going to be week-to-week with a lower-body injury the day before the pause. The Golden Knights were going to proceed down the home stretch without two-thirds of their top line, their young forward that’s supposed to carry the third line, and only a three-point lead in the division.

Pacioretty missed the second week of camp with an undisclosed injury. He joined the team in Edmonton last Monday and completed quarantine Sunday. The Golden Knights didn’t need Pacioretty to fill in for offense; Vegas averaged five goals per game during the round robin, which was tops in the qualifiers.

Talk about timing.

“It definitely stands out that we did our work over the break,” Pacioretty said. “The team looks like they’re in shape, team looks sharp. I know we had a really strong training camp. It definitely showed during the games that this team has their legs under them.”

The Golden Knights went 11-2-0 before the pause, which included an eight-game winning streak that involved wins against St. Louis, Washington, the Islanders and Tampa Bay.

In the midst, the Golden Knights flipped the hockey world on its head by not trading for a defenseman, but for goalie Robin Lehner ... from the Blackhawks. Lehner won his first three starts as Vegas’ 1B netminder to Marc-Andre Fleury, followed with two more wins in the round robin.

Lehner was the icing on the cake for a deadline that proved of merit. Vegas fortified its top four by acquiring Alec Martinez from Los Angeles, while adding bottom six agitator Nick Cousins from Montreal.

“The situation was one where Chicago had two number one goaltenders. No one could have foreseen we’d end up playing in the playoffs in a hub in Edmonton, Alberta,” said Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon. “We liked the makeup of our team. We worked hard to improve our roster, to have our roster positioned how we felt it needed it to be successful come playoff time.”

The opposition

When the Blackhawks traded Lehner to the Golden Knights on Feb. 24, they likely didn’t expect to be one of the final 16 in the playoffs.

They got in by way of equal opportunity for all, being the 12th team in the West and drawing the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-5 qualifying series. For at least one series, the Blackhawks turned back the clock.

The core that led Chicago to three Stanley Cup championships was in full force. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews had seven points in Chicago’s four-game series win; Duncan Keith had four assists, and Patrick Kane also had a point per game.

The biggest surprise was goalie Corey Crawford. Days before Chicago left for the hub city, the two-time Cup winner announced he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Despite missing most of training camp, Crawford did just enough to win three games, including a 43-save performance in the close-out Game 4.

“I don’t know if it was really a toss up against Edmonton,” Kane said. “I think a lot of people in the media and so-called hockey experts and analysts were picking Edmonton. We felt like the underdog in that series. It’s a cool role to play. It’s exciting for your team when everyone is counting you out and no one’s giving you a chance.

“I think Vegas is a really good hockey team just watching them in the round robin. They’re very detailed, very structured. It’s going to be a tough test for us and I think we know that as a team. We know we need to stick to our gameplan. I think all of us in our locker room are excited about the challenge and excited about playing the underdog role.”

Chicago’s built on the core four, but the youth movement has begun. Dominik Kubalik is a Calder Trophy finalist after a 30-goal regular season. Kirby Dach, the No. 3 overall pick in last summer’s NHL Draft, has elevated from fourth-line grinder to someone who could be a star soon.

McCrimmon praised Chicago GM Stan Bowman’s approach to the rebuild. Chicago is in the playoffs for the first time since 2017 after a first-round exit, and are five years removed from the Stanley Cup.

“Chicago, I’m certain, are going to be real pleased with the progress they’re making. Don’t underestimate what eliminating the Edmonton Oilers will do for the growth of that group,” McCrimmon said. “I see real good young players. I see great core players. When you look at those players who were there from the Stanley Cup teams, that’s great pedigree, and I think real leadership and mentorship for the young players.”

Blackhawks projected lineup

Dominik Kubalik — Jonathan Toews — Brandon Saad

Alex DeBrincat — Kirby Dach — Patrick Kane

Alex Nylander — Dylan Strome — Drake Caggiula

Ryan Carpenter — David Kampf — Matthew Highmore

Duncan Keith — Adam Boqvist

Calvin de Haan — Connor Murphy

Olli Maatta — Slater Koekkoek

Corey Crawford

Malcolm Subban

Three Golden Knights storylines entering series

At time of publishing, the Golden Knights have not named a starting goalie for Game 1. Based on his play in the round robin, it’s still expected that Lehner will get the call against his former team. What that does going forward remains to be seen; whether DeBoer will rotate between the two every game, or save Fleury for the back-to-back between Games 3 and 4 on Saturday. No matter who starts, the Golden Knights are banking on their goalie tandem to carry them to the very end. The first start, and DeBoer’s decision is going to be crucial.

Pacioretty practiced Monday for the first time since July 20. He reclaimed his spot on the top line with Stone and William Karlsson. Chandler Stephenson, who took Pacioretty’s spot in his absence, practiced on the third line (where he started in camp) with Nicolas Roy and Tuch. As for fourth-line center, that’s the question. Cousins started their at camp, but Tomas Nosek stepped into his familiar role during the round robin. It might not be the biggest battle, but Cousins has earned himself a role in some capacity.

“You add a guy like Max back in our lineup, I think it’s going to have a ripple effect on our team,” Schmidt said. “To have that many more guys with skill and speed up and down your lineup, that’s the biggest difference from where we are now and where we have been.”

Jonathan Marchessault’s two goals against Colorado on Saturday was a welcoming sign for Vegas’ second-line sniper, but the second line of Marchessault, Reilly Smith and Stastny could benefit from producing at 5-on-5. Marchessault’s goals came on the power play and a penalty shot. With the talk of the third line needing to get going, if Marchessault, Smith and Stastny can produce while Pacioretty eases into game action, that’s a gamechanger.

Golden Knights projected lineup

Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Mark Stone

Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith

Chandler Stephenson — Nicolas Roy — Alex Tuch

William Carrier — Nick Cousins — Ryan Reaves

Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt

Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore

Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud

Robin Lehner

Marc-Andre Fleury

How to watch Game 1

Time: 7:30 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet (locally), NBCSN (nationally), NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM

Opposing Blog: Second City Hockey